** NOTE ** This article has been updated with a video, shown below.
The parachute post on your size-twelve March Brown dances down-current. The fly drifts in harmony with the surrounding bubbles that were formed fifty feet upstream, where the river rolls over the riffle and begins widening into this shady flat.
Dressed with a dose of silicone floatant and tied slightly over-hackled, the fly seems nimble, even as the parachute style allows for a full-body contact with the surface of the water. The air trapped between the hackles acts as a life raft, supporting the tail and body tied to the hook below. It’s a good design.
When the s-curves in your leader finally run out, the fly starts a slow skate across the surface, and your dead drift is over. Now, if you could somehow go out to your fly and simply pluck it directly off the surface, it would make no disturbance on the water at all. (And the fly could stay dry all day long if picked up that way.) Instead the fly is attached to a leader that is partially stuck to the water’s surface. Same with the fly line. And wherever that line and leader go next, so too does the fly.
Your next move is critical for both a stealthy presentation and for keeping the fly dry enough to ride high on the next drift.
You need a pre-cast pickup. Here’s the video, followed by a thorough breakdown in the paragraphs that follow.
(Please select 4K or 1080p for best video quality)
It doesn’t matter how modern your fly line is, with its impregnated air bubbles, its super slick finish or it’s shark-skin texture. It still sinks into the surface, and it wants to stay there. As soon as the line touches the water it starts forming some kind of scientific bond — most of us just call this surface tension.
Same goes for the leader.
(Yes, greasing the leader or the line does help. So, do that too. But it does not eliminate this issue.)
If you have the experience of more than even a handful of days on the water with dry flies, you don’t need me to explain this. But, the longer the line lays on the water, the more surface tension builds up. Likewise, the more line you have on the water, the harder it is to pick up the leader, the line and the fly without causing disturbance on the surface or dragging the fly underneath.
Have you ever heard this noise from the fly as you start the backcast? It’s a dead giveaway that some adjustments should be made.
You need a pre-cast pickup.
Sometimes, part of the leader or the tip of the fly line falls under the surface during the drift. And when you start your cast, that line and leader drags the tippet under the water an inch or two. The fly follows. It dunks under the water, and it’s pulled back out — with speed — on its way toward your backcast loop. That’s where the pop comes from.
The pop is an extreme expression of this common casting problem. It signals the worst. But many more casts are made with the line, leader and fly dragging quickly across the surface, without a sound but likely spooking feeding fish. Compounding the trouble, water is also forced into the dry, making the next drift less efficient.
The solution is an artful activation of the fly line and leader.
The pre-cast is a simple motion that lifts some (or all) of the fly line off the water and gets the leader moving. It’s an elegant solution to a difficult issue.
A pre-cast pickup can be performed in a hundred ways and at just as many angles. It’s not difficult, and variations abound. The currents, streamside obstructions and wind all dictate what the best move is for a pre-cast. And so do the whims of the angler, because there is no best way. Simply get the fly line moving and lifting off the water with a pre-cast, and then fire off a nice crisp back cast.
The pre-cast pickup is very much like a mend. And right after that motion, the backcast follows.
Understand this point: There is no lag. The pre-cast is followed by the backcast without pause. It is fluid.
Try pre-casting as a reach mend and then back cast. Try it with the motion of a stack mend and then back cast. Try roll casting to the fly and then back cast. All of these are great ways to form a pre-cast. Experiment and find your way.
Again, when the dry fly drift is over, simply activate the line and get it moving before starting the backcast. The motion of the pre-cast breaks the hold of surface tension. And that’s the key. Once the surface lets go of the line, it is easily lifted off the water with minimal disturbance.
A good pre-cast can pluck the dry fly off the surface, looking like it has simply lifted and flown away. At a distance, that might seem like a magic trick. But it’s easy to perform. Get the fly line moving and lifting with the pre-cast, and then go seamlessly into a quick backcast.
Remember, if you start your next dry fly cast without lifting the line off the surface first, the line drags the leader and the fly across the water or under it. Neither of these options is any good.
Learn the motions of a pre-cast pickup. Trust yourself. And make it happen.
Fish hard, friends.
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Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N
Watch Joan Wulff demonstrate this really important, but rarely written about, casting technique:
Gary LaFontaine was a major proponent of the roll cast pick up. When done properly it is the near perfect delicate and subtle fly line pick up. Gary was emphatic that it should be the only method for line pick up when fishing dries. Rarely see this on the stream for some unknown reason.
Mastering these two pick up techniques is essential for an A+ dry fly game.
Excellent topic Dom! Normally this concept flies too far under the radar for most novice casters. Stay safe all.
The roll cast pick up when dry fly fishing usually does not entail the traditional draw back (although it can), because the fly line dragging downstream is enough to load the rod, then a sharp quick roll of the wrist/rod tip does the trick.
To be clear for everyone, what Joan demonstrates in that video is not what I’m referring to. I’m positive that Joan also understands what I wrote above, though, because she surely casts better than I do, and she’s a great teacher.
Her pickup in the video is inline. I’m recommending something else, and it is similar to what some here are calling a roll cast pickup. It just has a little more freedom and flexibility than that.
Yep your articles are always good. But this is a really good one…. in the new era of instant gratification… people need to remember quick and jerky and cast quickly again is not always the best and proper way…. I never see this on the streams. EVER
Would this also apply when fishing a dry dropper
Hi Skip. Sure, especially if you’re doing a Light Dry Dropper style.
I’ve used the roll cast pickup for many years and it tends to work for me quite well. I’m going to give the Joan Wulff video a look. Always looking to learn.
Great tip about pre-casting. I’ve been doing this intuitively (mostly with a gentle roll cast) for years in an effort to not disturb fish without realizing what I’ve been doing.
Naming it makes it all the better and will help be be more intentional with it.
I love that point. I’m a big believer that having a name for things gives us a better way to think about it.
I have shared this with a few friends. It’s a game changer for many and I am glad you posted it. I have habitually been using a roll cast pickup for … yikes … 30+ years!?!? I confess, not only is it practical but dammit, it’s fun!
Ha! That’s a good point too. It is fun! Seems kinda fancy and artful. I like it.
You guys are calling it a roll cast pickup, and that cool. But I also use any motion which simply gets the line moving — mend motions and little rolls, etc. Basically, I often combine a roll cast pickup and what Joan is doing in the video Rick posted above.
What I was calling a “roll cast” pick up is probably a confusing name because it does not at all involve the mechanics of a roll cast. I remember Gary LF calling it that but I think it is a bit more like some of those spey casting motions. Raise the line up a little then just a quick wiggle-flick – and leader, tippet, and fly are airborne. Definitely needs a better, more descriptive name. The “flick-up pick up” gets my vote.
Some of these advanced casting techniques are similar:
It is this type of content that makes this blog so unique. Keep on killin it Dom.
The pre-cast “lift” is an important concept in spey fishing. In both disciplines, you won’t execute a good cast when your fly and line are stuck in the water.
How do you like the Umpqua ZS2 Overlook? (see it in the main photo) Been eyeing one of those myself.
That is my friend, Bill Dell, with the pack on. You can find him on IG or FB. He’ll have some good opinions for you. Bill is hard on gear because he fishes so much.
Thanks Dom! I can’t seem to locate him on either platform. DO you have his Instagram account handy?
Sure thing. I just emailed you from my troutbitten address. Bill’s contact is contained Within.
Wow! This video was super helpful. Thanks for taking the time and effort to demonstrate it. I’m heading out just to see is this solves my horrible pickup. The art of the dry fly does not come naturally for me so if you want to demonstrate more of the finer points I wouldn’t object.
“As soon as the line touches the water it starts forming some kind of scientific bond — most of us just call this surface tension.”
Surface tension is produced by the cohesive force that attracts water molecules to each other. Cohesion forms water droplets (dew, rain, etc.) and what is sometimes erroneously referred to as the “skin” on the surface of water. At the interface, water molecules are not attracted to air molecules (N2 and O2), so the attractive force with the water molecules directly below them is significantly stronger, creating a stronger bond at the surface. This relatively strong bond can hold up materials that are denser than water; in fact, most of our dry flies (sans foam) are held up by surface tension. The same force also helps to support our floating fly lines. However, water molecules also stick to other materials (most notably, glass – but many others) due to the attractive force of adhesion. Water molecules exert a force of adhesion on fly lines, especially when they get coated with river gunk. Hydrophobic chemical coatings (think Rain-X or Teflon) counter the force of adhesion with a force of repulsion. When executing a line pickup, it is the force of adhesion that we are trying to break. Getting the line moving before the actual pickup, as demonstrated here, weakens the force of adhesion. When the line is suddenly lifted, without getting it in motion first, that full force of adhesion is broken violently with that rip you demonstrated. And yes, all of the different versions of the pickup in this video not just fun but essential for a stealthy pick up. Not trying to be a smart ass here, but i thought you might be interested in the science that makes this technique so effective. Cheers.
I appreciate that. And my writing of “some kind of scientific bond” is tongue-in-cheek. For our purposes, knowing that things kinda grip the water surface is enough. But I do love the science.
THIS lesson will make me a better dry fly angler on those flat sections that always give me fits. The wiggle makes it easier to remember to do, too. Will apply this technique the next time out there!